I hear variations of this question a lot:

  • “How do I get started in embedded software?”
  • “What should I do first?”
  • “I’ve developed some projects in Arduino – what do I do now?”

The great thing about the internet is that there are so many options available to learn any skill you can dream of. The bad thing about the internet is that there are so many options available to learn any skill you can dream of.

It’s easy to be paralyzed by the sheer number of choices.

Well-meaning people will often reply with answers like:

  • “Just pick a project and start hacking.”
  • “Blow some stuff up – don’t be afraid!”
  • “Do an online course.”

I’ve made comments like this myself. These comments aren’t necessarily bad advice, but if you’re a beginner, you are likely to want specific recommendations for what to do next. Do exactly this, then that.

I’m going to detail one approach to learning embedded software development that will take you from beginner to intermediate level, so you can be well on your way to getting a job working in the industry. There are many ways to learn embedded software, but if you’re paralyzed by indecision, and just want someone to point the way for you, this article is for you.

This will be a lot of work, and will take time. You will also need to invest in some basic equipment, like a development board, and few books and online courses, that I will detail below.

Let’s get started!

What I mean by “Embedded Systems”

The line between “Embedded Systems” and “General Purpose Computers” is getting increasingly blurry.

There are two primary categories of embedded software:

This article will discuss learning the second category of embedded software: firmware for microcontrollers.

Overview

I’ll dive into each of these elements in more detail, but let’s look at the steps to going from beginner to ready to apply for embedded software jobs.

Step 1: Learn C

The C programming language is the primary language of embedded systems. There are other languages in use, but C is by far the most common. You must know it and be comfortable understanding and writing code in it. Later, you can learn other languages such as C++, but for now, stick to C.

You will need to understand:

I recommend “Learn C the Hard Way” by Zed Shaw if you are new to C.

Once you have some experience working with C, I recommend reading Matt Stancliff’s Guide to Modern C.

Step 2: Learn basic electronics

If you’re writing software for microcontrollers, you’re going to interface with real-world hardware. You MUST get comfortable with basic electronic skills.

At a minimum, you need to understand:

I recommend following the “Getting Started with Electronics” e-book by Oyvind Nydal Dahl, available at https://www.build-electronic-circuits.com.

Step 3: Learn to use Arduino

Arduino is an open-source hardware platform, along with a development environment and set of libraries, to make working with embedded systems simple. Many may disagree, but I think the learning to work with an Arduino board is a wonderful way to get used to working with real hardware. Arduino abstracts away a lot of the software details that you’ll have to learn at some point.

You can skip this step if you don’t feel at all intimidated when faced with a microcontroller board, but if you have no prior experience with electronics, I definitely recommend playing around with Arduino.

I recommend following the book “Programming Arduino: Getting Started with Sketches” by Simon Monk.

Step 4: Follow an introductory online course

There are many online courses available that guide you through basic embedded systems programming.

There are two courses that I recommend following from beginning to end:

Along the way, Miro demonstrates many fundamental concepts in embedded development:

I can’t recommend this course enough. If you study and follow along carefully, you will have a deeper understanding of embedded programming than many working programmers.

I think you will get more out of this course if you take it after a more typical introductory course on embedded systems. This course will fill in a lot of the gaps in your knowledge, covering material that a more typical course glosses over.

Step 5: Follow a course on Real-Time Operating Systems

Typical desktop applications do not have true real-time deadlines. If the computer freezes for half a second while some background task is executing, the user may find it annoying, but life goes on.

If you are writing software for an autonomous vehicle, you have no such luxury. If the software task that controls the steering or braking is delayed because the controller is parsing some large incoming command message, your vehicle may drift into oncoming traffic or slam into the back of another vehicle.

Such systems are said to have “hard real-time requirements”. There are deadlines that, if missed, can cause serious harm.

For complex firmware that has many jobs to do, but must be guaranteed to meet real-time deadlines for at least some of those jobs, a real-time operating system (RTOS) is the standard tool to use.

There are many RTOS’s available, both open-source and proprietary. FreeRTOS is a widely used open-source RTOS that is commonly found in many industries. If you learn how to use FreeRTOS, you will be well-positioned to use any other RTOS that you may come across.

I recommend the Development of Real-Time Systems course on Coursera.

Step 6: Pick a project

It’s finally time to pick a project!

By this point, you should have enough practice under your belt that you don’t feel overwhelmed when working on something for yourself.

Start simple, build something to completion, then put your code aside and do it all over again, maybe with a different programming paradigm. For example, write your code the first time with just a main loop. Note any drawbacks. Then redo it as a main loop processing background tasks, and interrupts for any real time activity. Then redo it using FreeRTOS.

Here are some project ideas:

The most important thing to is to pick a simple, doable project and finish it. It’s still easy to be paralyzed by all the options out there. Just pick something!

Step 7: Build a portfolio

If your goal is to get a job as an embedded systems developer, and especially if you don’t have a degree in EE or Computer Engineering, an online portfolio is a great way to show off your skills and demonstrate that you can accomplish embedded development projects.

As you build your projects, keep careful notes on your design decisions, your development process, and your testing of the final result. Make yourself a webpage, and have a “Projects” section where you give an overview of each project and a link to a github repository of the code.

Since you are doing this to show future employers, you should only do this if you take the time to do it right. A sloppy portfolio with low-quality code can often be worse than no portfolio. If you don’t want to take the time to make this look professional, it may be better just to list your side-projects on your resume, and be prepared to talk about them in depth during your interviews.

Step 8: Start applying for jobs!

You are now in a strong position to be attractive to employers as a junior embedded software engineer. The following industries are great places to look for jobs.

Good luck!